Talking Puberty With Big Mouth’s Jessi Klein and Andrew Goldberg

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Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

The animated Netflix series Big Mouth reveals the horrors and horniness of puberty, and does it from the perspectives of boys as well as girls. That’s in keeping with the gender-inclusive vision laid out by co-creators Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett, who decided that periods and penises deserved equal time on their half-hour comedy.

Last month, Goldberg and Jessi Klein — the comedian and Inside Amy Schumer writer who voices one of the show’s main characters, also named Jessi — spoke to me about how they depicted the challenges that middle-schoolers, particularly female ones, face during that “special” time in life. At the time of our conversation, the wave of accusations against Harvey Weinstein was only beginning to crest, which put some of the subjects Big Mouth addresses in a new context. Suddenly, the main focus of the show — learning how to navigate one’s sexuality and the confusing gender dynamics that come with it — seemed more relevant than it had when the show dropped on Netflix in late September.

Obviously a lot of this show is based on your own experiences going through puberty. At what point did you think to yourselves, “We really want this to be about girls as well as boys.”
Jessi Klein: Did that only happen after Harvey Weinstein was fired?

Andrew Goldberg: Yeah, we were like, “Oh shit, we have to rapidly change course. Screw the intricacies of how long it takes to animate TV.”

I mean, Nick and I created it with Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, and I think Nick and Mark and I were all very interested in showing the girls’ side, too. Jen is somebody that, in the writing, we really leaned very heavily upon in terms of telling those girls’ stories. Mark and Jen [who are married] also have a teenage daughter. They have a teenage daughter and a teenage son, so they’ve seen both sides and are a great resource in that respect.

I remember very early on we knew that we wanted the first episode to be Andrew coming in his pants and Nick seeing Andrew’s penis and feeling insecure. We knew that we wanted the second episode to be Jessi getting her first period inside the Statue of Liberty. I remember very early on, we were interviewing one of our female writers and, because we had said “We’re going to show Andrew’s penis in the first episode,” she was like, “Are you going to show a vagina at some point?” Nick and I were like, “Uh, I don’t know,” and Jen was like, “Absolutely. One hundred percent, we have to.” And we’re like, “Okay, if we have to.” And then we did. And we made the vagina talk.

I really loved the period episode. When that experience is depicted, often it’s either really celebrated or it’s really stigmatized. What you did was right down the middle, acknowledging that it is an uncomfortable and weird thing for a girl, but it also isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Jessi, did you have any input as far as how that would be presented?
JK: Everyone involved, all of the creators of the show, have always been amazing about asking for my input, especially on episodes that feature Jessi heavily. So, for sure, I think I was in the writers room for at least a couple of days while that one was happening.

I remember very clearly getting my first period, which, for the record, was on Yom Kippur at my grandmother’s house, which is perhaps the most traumatic version that could have happened to me at that time.

AG: Good Yontif.

JK: Ah, Good Yontif to you, ma’am.

What did you do?
JK: You know, my very old grandmother definitely didn’t have any pads floating around. She was 90 million decades past that point. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I stuffed some toilet paper in my underwear and somehow made it back up from Staten Island, where she lived, to Manhattan in the evening and told my mom what was going on. I think she started to cry in a nice way.

The other insane part of my personal story was — and this is really obscure and weird, and I’m realizing I’m taking you to this weird place. My grandmother is first-generation American-Russian-Jewish. When I told her I thought this was happening, she was really excited. She slapped me across the face, which I think is an obscure tradition.

Later in life, I met only two other Jewish women who were like, “I know what that is.” It was truly the weirdest possible way for how that all could have happened. There was not one normal detail about what happened around any of it for me. Part of what I loved about that episode was that it felt like it was happening in an equally weird, uncomfortable way for Jessi. I was just so happy it was capturing that mix of feelings that you have about it, which aren’t one thing or the other. It’s a lot of different stuff.

I remember feeling very upset more than anything else. I was like, “This is going to happen over and over again? This just seems excessive.”
JK: It’s also just so physically shocking. You’re like, “Wait, what now? I can’t believe this happened and now it’s going to continue to happen one million times.” [Laughs.] Or whatever. Right? That’s the average number of times a woman has a period in her life: one million. I feel like I’m there.

AG: One to eight million, I think.

JK: Between one and one billion times.

AG: For the Jessi stories especially, we got some Jessi Klein time in the room, which is super-useful. Part of what helps is Jessi will record with Jessica Chaffin, who plays her mom, or with Maya Rudolph, who plays her Hormone Monster, or with Jenny Slate, who plays Missy. Just getting two or three women in the booth together and letting them read the script a few times but then improvise, I think also helps it feel more authentic. I remember that scene with you and your mom in the car when Jessi is just crying and half making sense and Chaffin is reacting to you. You guys did that together and it’s a scene that would be almost impossible to write.

JK: Yeah, and Jessica Chaffin is also a good friend of mine. We’re about the same age and we have a lot of similar cultural and timeline experiences growing up when we did. We just get such a kick out of doing this together. I love having her as my mom.

I was wondering about how often you were in the booth with other people. That’s not always the case for animated shows, but you were with other actors more often than not?
JK: For sure, yeah. Definitely more with other people than not.

AG: We have a busy cast with busy schedules. But as often as we can, we try to get people in the room together because it’s just that much better comedically and emotionally. Also, you have all these actors who are great improvisers. We’d be really remiss if we weren’t taking advantage of that. We’ll record it a couple of times on script and then we’ll let them open it up and find different funny or personal moments. Our audio editors spend hours and hours going through all of the improv and finding the stuff that works the best.

Can you think of specific things that came out of improvisation that ended up in the episodes, aside from the crying scene you mentioned? Especially with Maya Rudolph, because it felt really important for those two characters to play off each other.
AG: Gosh, it’s hard to remember what was written and what was improvised, which is a testament to how organically it all comes together. Any scene, whether it’s gone off-script or not, something from improv will always sneak in. Those moments are usually the most unexpected and the most quirky and unique in our experience.

JK: I’ll just say for me, performing-wise, it was so much easier for me to be in the scenes with Maya because I’ve worshipped her always. She is just one of my all-time most beloved writer-performer-actresses ever. I met her a few times before we recorded for this show, but I certainly didn’t know her well. I’m just so in love with her. Being in a room with her brings to life the combination of love and intimidation that I feel for her, and it really transfers over to the relationship between the character Jessi and the Hormone Monstress. I’m afraid of her in the most worshipful way, which is kind of what I think the relationship is supposed to be.

You referenced Harvey Weinstein earlier. I was rewatching some episodes again and I feel like I’m seeing everything differently now. Even the episode where Jessi gets the red bra, it’s very confusing and upsetting. Those moments are formative in terms of how people think about sexuality, even at that young age. That feels even more relevant in light of all these discussions about harassment. Can you speak to how that episode came about?
AG: The writer is Emily Altman, who did such an amazing job. We were first thinking about that episode when we were writing it about a girl getting breasts for the first time. We read an article by Peggy Orenstein, who wrote the book about girls and adolescent sexuality called Girls & Sex, where she was pointing out that sex ed for boys is about erections and ejaculation, and for girls, they teach periods and “don’t get pregnant.” We realized that we fell into that trap a little bit with the first two episodes, all about ejaculation and periods, so “Girls Are Horny, Too” is our way to course correct.

JK: Yeah, I hear you on seeing these things differently in light of Harvey Weinstein being outed as a serial rapist in the last few weeks. It’s hard to not see everything differently. I remember moments in the room when we were on the topic of kids in junior high school — and particularly the character of Jay, [who says], “You can tell Jessi wants it, she’s wearing a red bra” — it was clear this is volatile territory to go into because obviously, this is what kids have to deal with as they move through adolescence. Girls are suddenly thrust into this position where wearing a red bra gives you a power you don’t necessarily want, and boys ideally are learning how to treat women with respect.

I’m pretty lucky, relatively speaking. I went to a school that was relatively safe, but it was still a free-for-all. There was a day where all the boys decided they would run up next to the girls and put their arms around our shoulders and say, like, “How you doing?” They’d squeeze our shoulders and then run away. We realized they were looking to see who was wearing a bra and who wasn’t. They were feeling for a strap. At the time, I was most definitely not. [Laughs] I felt two things: One, why are these boys running up and touching us? And two: I was embarrassed I wasn’t wearing a bra yet.

If you do have a bra, that means you’re more developed and you’re embarrassed by that, and if you don’t, you feel like you’re underdeveloped and you’re embarrassed by that. There’s no winning at that age.
JK: Yeah, there is no winning. I think about what my junior high school was like. Tons of things were happening to girls no matter what, but I do specifically remember having a couple of friends who were more developed or had the biggest boobs in the class. The things that were happening to them were fucking crazy. Boys were groping them.

Maybe the show can help open up some of the conversations between parents and their sons, in addition to daughters, but boys taking more responsibility for the way they treat girls. Andrew, I didn’t tell you, but a friend who I went to junior high school with emailed me that she watched the entire season with her 13-year-old son. She was like, “He loved it, but I kind of wish we hadn’t watched the episodes together.” [Laughs.] The language was so brazen. She was like, “I’m happy to talk to him about it, but watching it with him — I don’t think he felt anything bad about it, but I was dying.”

AG: Nick has been very vocal about about wanting parents to watch it with their kids. We’ve gotten emails and DMs and stuff where people have said that they did and it was a good experience. I have a friend who watched it with her husband and her husband shared that he ejaculated climbing the rope at gym class for the first time and I was like, “Oh, you guys are sharing. That’s lovely.”

I also have a son and he’s going to start middle school next year. I haven’t watched this with him, and I will wait a little while to do that. But just yesterday, he was saying to me that he heard someone say the middle-school years are the worst years of your life. He was like, “Is that true?” And I was like, “Weeeelllll…”

JK: Yeah, that’s a real toughy. It’s hard to pave that one over. It really fucking sucks. He’ll get through.

I hope so.
AG: It’s a dramatic time. That’s one of the reasons it’s fun doing a show about it. There’s also a lot of truth in the show that it’s made a lot easier if you have good friends to go through it.

Right. I’m still friends with a lot of my friends from middle school, actually.
JK: I was going to say, yeah, my best friend is still my best friend from middle school.

Jessi, is there anything in particular you would want to tackle in the second season?
JK: I would like to delve into Harvey Weinstein’s puberty and see what went wrong. Kind of like, if we could do a Hitler time machine, and try and just go and fix it. Yeah, no, I mean, there’s really just so much to talk about. I think there’s endless material, Weinstein aside.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Big Mouth’s Jessi Klein and Andrew Goldberg Talk Puberty